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Friday July 30th, 2021 7:20PM

The Latest: WHO still struggling to manage pandemic response

By The Associated Press
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GENEVA — When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic one year ago, it did so only after weeks of resisting the term and maintaining the highly infectious virus could still be stopped.

A year later, the U.N. agency is still struggling to keep on top of the evolving science of COVID-19, to persuade countries to abandon their nationalistic tendencies and help get vaccines where they’re needed most.

WHO waved its first big warning flag on Jan. 30, 2020, by calling the outbreak an international health emergency.

Only when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared a “pandemic” six weeks later, on March 11, did most governments take action, experts say. By then, it was too late, and the virus had reached every continent except Antarctica.

The agency made some costly missteps along the way: It advised people against wearing masks for months and asserted that COVID-19 wasn’t widely spread in the air. It also declined to publicly call out countries — particularly China — for mistakes that senior WHO officials grumbled about privately.

Globally, there’s been 118 million coronavirus cases and 2.6 million confirmed deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The United States leads the world with 29 million cases and more than 529,000 deaths.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

— A year after declaring a pandemic, World Health Organization is struggling to fight vaccine nationalism and to keep up with the rapidly evolving science around COVID-19

— Austria targets one hard-hit region with mass vaccinations to fight virus variant first found in South Africa

— Biden will use his first prime-time address to steer nation toward hope in the midst of the pandemic

— Brazil’s hospitals falter as a highly contagious virus variant tears through the country

— Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

DENVER — Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Denver on Tuesday to highlight the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill passed by Congress.

The vice president’s office says details on the visit by Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, are still being worked out. Harris’ trip is part of an ambitious campaign by President Joe Biden’s administration to showcase the relief bill.

The campaign includes travel by the president, first lady Jill Biden and Cabinet secretaries. The U.S. House gave final congressional approval to the massive relief package along a near-party-line vote on Wednesday.

Harris’ office said she will address the aid package’s many aspects, among them an extension of $300 weekly emergency unemployment benefits into September and the shoring up of state and local government finances. Biden plans to sign the measure Friday.

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SEATTLE — The city of Seattle will open a new mass COVID-19 vaccination site on Saturday, with the aim of eventually inoculating 22,000 people each day.

The site at the Lumen Field Event Center will run seven days a week. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says at full capacity, the operation will be the largest civilian run vaccination site in the country.

In January 2020, Snohomish County reported the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States.

Currently, vaccination eligibility is limited to people over 65, teachers and licensed childcare providers. The state Health Department says so far more than 750,000 people in Washington have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

More than 5,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Washington state, which has more than 345,000 confirmed cases.

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BERLIN — The head of Germany’s disease control agency says measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have saved more than 100,000 lives in the country since the start of the pandemic a year ago.

In a lecture Thursday to students at the Technical University of Munich, Lothar Wieler said his agency had calculated the lethality of a COVID-19 infection to be about 1.14% for Germany, meaning a nationwide spread of the virus could have led to more than 800,000 deaths.

“In our country, we saved ten thousands, if not (a) hundred thousand lives already by these public health measures,” said Wieler, who heads the Robert Koch Institute.

The agency reported 14,356 confirmed cases and 321 deaths in Germany overnight, taking the total to more than 2.5 million cases and 72,810 COVID-related deaths.

Wieler said at the U.N. in Geneva on Wednesday that he believes a “third wave” of infections has begun in Germany.

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — Health officials in Hungary reported more than 8,300 new coronavirus cases, the highest single-day total since the beginning of the pandemic.

Officials say the increase in new infections is likely due to a variant of the virus first discovered in Britain, which has led to a sharp surge in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Hungary has more patients being treated in hospitals now than at any other time during the pandemic, putting a strain on its understaffed healthcare system. Doctors at several hospitals say intensive wards are filling up, and that they are having to give priority to younger critical patients with higher chances of survival when determining who to admit to intensive care.

A new round of lockdown restrictions were introduced on Monday to curb the surge, including mandatory closure of most businesses and suspension of kindergartens and primary schools.

As of Thursday, 16,497 coronavirus-related deaths were confirmed in the country of fewer than 10 million.

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BERLIN — Austria is embarking on an ambitious drive to inoculate residents of a district that has been particularly hard-hit by the virus variant first found in South Africa, a move that is part of a research project into vaccinations.

Some 48,500 of the 64,000 people eligible for vaccinations in Tyrol province’s Schwaz district have signed up to be vaccinated in the drive that starts Thursday, according to the Austrian news agency APA.

Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said the rollout will offer vaccine jabs to all people 16 and over.

The district, east of the provincial capital of Innsbruck and home to about 84,000 people, has been a source of concern for weeks. As of last week, it accounted for 66 of 88 active confirmed cases of the more transmissible variant in the province, APA reported.

The variant first identified in South Africa is a source of particular concern because of doubts over whether all vaccines currently available are fully effective against it.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the plan was Austria’s “opportunity to eliminate the variant in the Schwaz district.”

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JERUSALEM — The Israeli military says it has vaccinated the vast majority of its soldiers, allowing the military to resume many of its normal operations.

The army announced Thursday that nearly 80% of its soldiers have either been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19. It expects that number to increase to 85% in the coming days.

Military officials say they cannot force remaining soldiers to be vaccinated. But Brig. Gen. Alon Glazberg, the army’s chief medical officer, says units in which 90% of the soldiers have been vaccinated or recovered have been branded “green” status. Such units have much more flexibility in terms of training, gathering and operating.

“That will allow us to train and also operate in a more normal way,” he told reporters. “There are still some restrictions, but in general, a green unit can go back and behave as one capsule.”

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AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency was meeting Thursday to discuss whether Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose coronavirus vaccine should be authorized, a move that would give the European Union a fourth licensed vaccine to try to curb the pandemic amid a stalled inoculation drive.

The Amsterdam-based EU regulator is scheduled to convene its expert committee in the morning to assess the J&J vaccine data. A decision on whether the agency recommends that the shot be licensed across the 27-nation bloc could come in the afternoon.

The EMA has already approved COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the J&J shot in late February. Health experts hope that having a one-dose vaccine will speed efforts to immunize the world against COVID-19, especially given the arrival of worrying new variants in recent months.

The EU has struggled to quickly roll out shots and immunize its most vulnerable citizens. It ranks far behind countries including Israel, Britain, Chile and the U.S.

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BRUSSELS — European Union figures show that the 27-nation bloc has allowed the export of over 34 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines over the past weeks despite shortages at home as it continues to struggle to get its vaccine drive up to speed.

Several officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the figures said that over 9.1 million doses were exported to the United Kingdom at a time when diplomatic tensions rose over vaccine exports and the implementation of the Brexit divorce agreement. The EU had wanted AstraZeneca vaccines from Britain to make up the shortfall of the company’s commitment to the EU.

The figures show that even if the EU is accused of “vaccine nationalism” major exports continue from the bloc. The exports are almost as high as the roughly 45 million doses that have been distributed within the EU as of last week.

One diplomat said of over 200 authorizations for export granted, only one was refused. Last week, a shipment of more than a quarter million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia was blocked from leaving the EU, in the first use of an export control system by the bloc to make sure big pharma companies respect their contracts.

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ATHENS — Greece’s prime minister has outlined a new 2.5 billion-euro ($3 billion) package of relief measures for businesses and workers affected by the coronavirus pandemic and related lockdowns.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Thursday the new stimulus package would provide relief for more than 500,000 businesses and freelancers, and millions of workers. The country has been under various forms of lockdown restrictions since early November, with retail businesses and restaurants shut and strict limits imposed on movement outside the home.

The new package brings the total funds provided for pandemic relief measures to 11.6 billion euros so far in 2021, Mitsotakis said, adding that 24 billion euros were spent on supporting businesses and workers in 2020.

Greece’s economy had an estimated 8.2% contraction in 2020, smaller than the initially projected 10.5%.

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BERLIN — Jordan’s foreign minister is calling for more support with coronavirus vaccines as his country tries to ensure its own citizens as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily from Syria, are inoculated.

Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi told Germany’s Deutsche Welle that Jordan was far short of the number of vaccines it needed, and was trying to procure doses from China and Russia as well as from Western producers.

He says “pretty much we’re knocking on every door that is out there."

Jordan has included its massive refugee population in its virus response and is offering them free vaccines. But he says the onus shouldn’t be on Jordan alone.

Safadi says “refugees cannot be the responsibility of host countries only; it is a global challenge and therefore the solution has to be global.”

He says Jordan does “appreciate the tremendous support that we got from our partners in Europe and the U.S. and others” but that now resources are dwindling for refugees.

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WARSAW — Poland’s government reported more than 21,000 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, the highest daily number since November.

Authorities say Poland is in a third surge caused by the more transmissible virus variant first found in England.

With 375 new deaths also reported, Poland is facing a difficult situation. The numbers of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are also growing amid a shortage of health care workers.

The nation of 38 million has recorded more than 1.8 million infections and more than 46,000 deaths from the coronavirus. More than 4.2 million vaccine doses have been administered amid a slow vaccine rollout in the European Union, to which Poland belongs.

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AMSTERDAM — The European Medicines Agency said it has started an expedited approval process of two experimental antibody treatments for coronavirus developed by Eli Lilly.

In a statement Thursday, the EU regulator said it was considering whether the antibody bamlanivimab should be licensed by itself and in combination with another drug, etesemivab. The two drugs are monoclonal antibodies that are designed to attach to the spike protein of the coronavirus and prevent the virus from invading the body’s cells.

“EMA will evaluate all data on these medicines, including evidence from clinical trials as they become available,” the EMA said, adding that its evaluation of data from animals has already begun.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted an emergency use approval for bamlanivimab in November. It approved the combination treatment for both antibodies in February.

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KAMPALA, Uganda — The director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging “continental capacity” to produce COVID-19 vaccines as Africa tries to vaccine more of its 1.3 billion people.

Dr. John Nkengasong says at least five African countries appear to have the capacity to produce vaccines. He mentioned South Africa, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

He said a meeting is planned for April 12 between the African Union and outside partners to create a “roadmap” for boosting African capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s so important for us to have that,” he said.

Birgitte Markussen, head of the European Union delegation to the African Union, told the briefing that “efforts will be made to support local production” of vaccines. She said solidary is important “to make sure no one is left behind” in global efforts to stop the pandemic.

At least 22 of Africa’s 54 countries have received COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX program. The continent has set a target of vaccinating at least 60% of its people.

Africa has reported 3.9 million coronavirus cases and more than 106,000 confirmed deaths. South Africa is the worst affected country, with more than 1.5 million cases and 51,000 reported deaths.

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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine capital placed two villages and two hotels on lockdown Thursday and police have renewed warnings against kissing and other “public display of affection” after a new surge in coronavirus infections.

Manila Mayor Isko Moreno said police would not allow people to go in and out of their houses and the two hotels during the three-day lockdown and violators would be forced into 14-day quarantine. Isolated residents would be given food boxes, and medical workers and other authorized personnel would be exempt.

Other cities in the capital reimposed lockdowns in several neighborhoods and longer night curfews after detecting new infections.

National police chief Debold Sinas said a ban on “public display of affection” like holding hands and kissing would be strictly enforced again due to infection spikes.

Authorities have blamed public complacency a year into the pandemic for the surge in COVID-19 cases, specifically in Manila. The country has reported 12,545 deaths.

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Organizers say a veteran Iditarod musher was removed from the race after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

The organizers say Gunnar Johnson, 52, of Duluth, Minnesota, was withdrawn from the event at the McGrath, Alaska, checkpoint Wednesday.

Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman, working with epidemiologist Dr. Jodie Guest, made the decision to remove Johnson, who is asymptomatic, based on the rules set in the race’s COVID-19 mitigation plan.

The organizers say Johnson is incredibly disappointed and felt his dog team looked great. Johnson had 14 dogs racing with him. After the positive test, Johnson was removed from the checkpoint area and taken off the trail.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea will vaccinating elders in long-term care settings against the coronavirus this month after authorities approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for adults 65 years old and older.

The decision by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was based on encouraging data from England and Scotland that the vaccine lowered hospitalizations and death rates in the age group.

South Korea delayed approving the AstraZeneca vaccine for people older than 65 when it began its vaccination campaign last month, citing insufficient laboratory data. But health experts accused the government of risking the safety of people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

The KCDC says 376,000 workers and residents older than 65 at long-term care hospitals, nursing homes, mental health facilities and rehab centers will begin receiving the shots this month.

About 35% of the country’s COVID-19 deaths in 2020 were linked to long-term care facilities.

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